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Strike looms as SVSU teachers, boards remain apart on labor contract

August 16, 2011

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON — With the start of the school year looming, local teachers and school boards have made no progress toward a labor contract acceptable to both sides, hastening the possibility that teachers could vote to strike at a meeting set for Aug. 31.

An Aug. 3 meeting between negotiating teams for teachers in the Southwest Vermont Education Association, a branch of the Vermont NEA, and local school boards in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union failed to produce an agreement. No further meetings have taken place between the two parties.

“There have not been any meetings between the teacher negotiation team and the boards’ negotiation team since August 3,” said attorney Steven Stitzel, who is representing the Bennington School District, Mount Anthony Union, Southwest Vermont Regional Technical School, North Bennington, Pownal and Shaftsbury boards.

Local union President Stephannie Peters said members will meet on Aug. 29 so that union officials can answer questions for rank-and-file members. Another meeting will be held on Aug. 31, during which union members will be asked to vote on how to proceed.

“As of this very moment, we’re not sure what we’ll be asking them. We’ll be asking them something,” Peters said. “Depending on where we are in the process, we’ll be asking them to make some type of decision. It is entirely up to the membership what we do.”

Each board voted to impose a contract on the union in June, just after the school year ended. It was the first time in 22 years that such an action has been taken, according to officials.

The action left the union with several options — accept the imposed contract, return to the negotiating table and seek agreement on a contract for the 2011-12 school year, or go on strike.

Teachers must return to work for in-service days beginning Aug. 29. Students will return to area schools on Sept. 6. Stitzel said he does not expect to receive any prior notice of the teachers’ intentions, or whether they will hold a vote to consider a strike.

“I guess we’ll know better what the teachers intend to do as that day grows closer,” he said. “They don’t have to tell us that they’re going to hold such a vote. If they do hold such a vote and they decide to go out on strike, certainly they would announce that publicly.”

The school boards and teachers remain divided over three main issues — the amount of health care premiums the districts will pay, how much of the school day is under the control of administrators and salaries. The imposed contract includes pay increases that are smaller for most teachers than the contract they had been working under.

Under the imposed contract, most teachers will see about a $700 salary increase. Under the previous, expired contract, some newer teachers would have seen salary increases of about $1,400, while the most experienced teachers would have seen no increase.

The imposed contract also requires teachers to pay for more of their health care premiums. The boards had initially proposed an increase over a three-year period that would have teachers pay 20 percent of premiums, up from 15 percent. The imposed contract immediately jumped the teachers’ share to 20 percent.

The districts also assert more control of the work day to administrators at the middle and high school level in the imposed contract. Teachers at the middle school will see the amount of direct contact minutes — the time they spend with students — jump from 240 minutes to 300 minutes out of the 450-minute work day. Teachers at the high school will see their direct contact minutes increase from 250 to 300. Elementary school teachers have already been working under such conditions.

The sides exchanged their first contract proposals in February 2010 and held several negotiating sessions. They entered mediation in September 2010, and agreed to a third-party fact-finding report in February of this year. The report was delivered in April and lead to the boards’ final offer to teachers on June 6. A contract was imposed after that offer was rejected.

Meanwhile, both sides say they remain optimistic that an agreement can still be reached.

“We are still committed to negotiating and having a fair and equitable contract. Our negotiating team is still doing that and that is our best hope,” Peters said.

“The boards have continued to express they’re willingness to meet with the teacher negotiation team to discuss matters that the teachers believe to be in dispute,” Stitzel said. “That is where the energy of the board negotiation team has been going right now.”

Should teachers vote to strike, the timing of the vote could still allow for teachers to receive their first paychecks, according to SVSU Chief Financial Officer Richard Pembroke.

“Theoretically, that’s a possibility,” he said.

Teacher’s will be paid on Sept. 1, but the payroll process will begin on Aug. 26, Pembroke said. “There is a point of no return,” he said.

SVSU Superintendent Catherine McClure said administration officials are trying to encourage discussions between the two sides and preparing for the school year.

“Right now our focus is on preparing for students, preparing for the teachers, and encouraging a settlement before school starts, keeping our children in mind,” McClure said.

Contact Neal P. Goswami atngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

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